Bowery Capital’s Adam Smith On What It Was Like To Be a Product Manager at Google

Videos, Product Management, PM Confessions

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Adam Smith, Venture Partner at Bowery Capital and self-described "X-Google product guy", joins us to kick off our latest “Confessions of a Product Manager” video. Prior to Bowery, Adam was VP of Product at Metamarkets, served as a General Partner at AOL Ventures, and worked on various products at Google.

Wizeline Head of Product Matt Pasienski gets Adam to tell us about the following:

  • What his path from being a product manager to managing global teams was like at Google
  • His part in creating Google Alerts and Google Maps and why he sometimes describes product managers as glorified notetakers
  • How product managers are able to provide the most value as translators when the team building the product isn’t the core user

We’ll post the rest of Adam’s interview  later this week and next!

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Full transcript:

Matt Pasienski: You talk about all these user research kind of work flows. It's just about getting out of your own head.

Adam Smith: I also think you've got a framework for how you're designing the thing so it t all makes sense to you, but if you don't spend the time to think of what framework or what philosophy you're using, you have no idea. We did have a user experience lab and we were watching people using Google product. You basically put them in front of a machine and have them do task. You're like, "Hit the button. Hit the button. How can you not see it. It's so clear. It's so well designed."

Matt Pasienski: I'm here today with Adam Smith, who is a good friend of ours here at Wizeline and an investor at Barry Capital, but more importantly, a Product Manager at heart. We get a lot of great advice from him so we're going to put it on tape.  So you worked at Google, but you've now grown in terms of the amount of things that you see on the day to day. When you start as a Product Manager, you start with a small scope.  Describe to me the path from being a Product Manager back in 2001, coming up through Google, getting larger teams, and eventually getting to the point where you're seeing hundreds of companies and giving advice on the way you are.  What were the key kind of anecdotal lessons that you learned along the way?

Adam Smith: I started off as a software engineer, loved building things, loved tinkering, but realized pretty early on in my career that I preferred actually thinking about why we were building it rather than going down, and heads down, and building them the product. I was working for Telecom Italia, and I was working a lot of using SMS services. We were building this backend for handling messaging output.  I said, "What can we do with this?" And thinking about Fantasy Soccer was much more interesting to me than how many thousands of messages I can send per second.

So that led me ... I ended up interviewing with Google, coming over into Product. What was fun about Google in the early days is it was you and sometimes an engineer, with an idea. My first product that we launched, that was from idea through conception, through launch, was Google Alerts. I was having lunch with this guy, Naga, and he said, "Hey I have this crazy idea. I want to search on Google and if there's a new result, I want them to email me. I built this prototype. Will you check it out?" The first thing you do of course, is put your name in so if anyone writes a story about you, you can see it. We at Google, played around with it and eventually sort of took that through and branded it "Google Alerts". I did some interesting decisions on it, and that was Product. There you are, just one engineer and you dreaming up, doing whatever you want. Google gave me sort of all the flexibility.

Matt Pasienski: You had access to this enormous thing that had never existed, which was Google Search.  It's like, "What happens with this?"

Adam Smith: Exactly. All  of the infrastructure is there. It was, "Hey do whatever you can dream to do with this, go for it." You do that for a while, and then later on in your career, you start working on other projects, like Google Maps. We decided,"Let's launch." They launched in the US, and the US was wonderfully done, and then if you panned over, it was all water. The entire world was water. It was most US, non sort of thinking of the world, product.

Matt Pasienski: That's why Europe is coming after Google now.

Adam Smith: [crosstalk 00:03:41] They should come after the US, because the first Google Maps assumed they were just a water world, if you will, over on the right-hand side.  We knew we had to go international so we did England, because it's easier for us, same language, moved into Italy, France, Spain, Germany. As we did this, we realized this was a lot of work, getting that data, normalizing it, putting it out there so people can see it. The idea was the only way we were going to scale this up is if we get 10X or 100X our team, and the only way we're going to do that is if we start hiring people outside of Mountain View.

We had a bunch of international offices. As a Product Manager, my job was, "How do we make this work?" Doing the sort of the hub and spoke model where I would find a team in Sydney, and say, "Hey, you guys want maps in Australia?" Of course they say, "Yes." I'm like, "Well here's the recipe." If it was a good tech lead, I'd say, "Hey, why don't you just be the Product Manager for this. I'll remote to support you and if anyone asks what's going on, I'm here. I've got your back. Go ahead and do this." In my career I went from being with the teams, to enabling teams to work on their own. I see as a Venture Capitalist, it's just another level away. We're always like, "It's your company. You're the founders. My job is to be there, let you know if I think what you're doing is right or wrong, and be that support." Ultimately, it's your ship, you need a commander.

Matt Pasienski: You talked about that stepping out of the way. We think generally about ... I think this is a good model that there's the user experience, there's the business side and the tech side, and those are kind of the three parts of that triangle that constitutes Product Management. You say if those things are working, Product Manager get out of the way. There's always more work to be done elsewhere. If something is working, get out of the way or get it to that level where you can step out of the way.

Adam Smith: I have to say Jonathan Rosenberg, who recently wrote a book, and he's kind of out there on the circuit right now. He did draw this one diagram that I will always remember. It was, "Here is what a Product Manager does." You know a typical Venn diagram. "Here's what the tech leader engineer does." He's showing the overlap. He's like, "You can fight about that overlap all you want. But the problem is if they're doing that part of the job, they're probably not doing something else. So really look at yourself as, 'What's not getting done? What can you do so that the thing can go forward?'"

We were talking earlier and I said sometimes there were teams where I was a glorified note taker. My job was to let the Product Organization know what was going on, tell them everything's fine, and if they needed resources, to really enable that team to run and independently and as accurately as they can.

Matt Pasienski: I think Google's a special place. You talk about Jonathan Rosenberg like how Google works, and you read that book, and it's just like, "Yeah. They were throwing off money. Anybody could do their wild idea and there was resources to support them." As a Product Manager you want to step out of the way, you do want to become that person that just makes sure things are successful, but what do you do if you need to go in and demonstrate value? If you're on the line, what advice would you give to someone who wants to show that the product is succeeding but feels that need to go and insert themselves to demonstrate that they're valuable as well.

Adam Smith: I think you frame the question in a way ... I think Product Managers that need to demonstrate their value by inserting themselves, that can be very problematic. I think where the team and the Product Manager really make a lot of sense is where the team building the product, aren't necessarily the core users of the product. If you're building Search, and you're an engineer, and you search a lot. You know the problem. You know the set. You may not have the same discipline of thinking about how your Y's and your X's have gone through, and concepts are agile.

You know what the problem is. You're just building to it. When you're building sort of B to B software, one of our companies does analytics for RTV, if you're not an engineer that happened to have been in the Ad Tech space who knows what real time bidding is, and knows what a publisher needs, and what an advertiser wants, and how these connect up. It's unlikely that team is going to have the expertise. That's were a Product Manager has to basically figure out, not only to know it themselves but how to translate that information, and how to bring that to the team so that you're all working from a knowledgeable standpoint.

Jen Chien Posted by Jen Chien on Tuesday, August 11, 2015.


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Apr 28, 2017

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